Friday, January 14, 2011
Men with Eating Disorders: a Confession
If it's not exactly a stereotype, there is a widespread assumption that only teenaged girls have eating disorders. I know this isn't true because I was once a teenaged boy with eating disorders and I know other males who have also suffered these horrible afflictions.
I'm now sixty three and I still have a diluted form of compulsive eating behavior. I've learned to reduce the harm it does to me but I'm still subject to frustrating and irrational food urges.
My nightmare began when I was eighteen. I was living alone in a small cottage in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was during the winter of 1967 when I started having compulsions that I didn't understand.
Yellow Springs is a pleasant town that is the home of Antioch College. When I was applying to colleges in my senior year of high school, Antioch was my first choice, and, in truth, my only choice. There was no other school that appealed to me. I applied, and wrote an essay with every ounce of passion I could summon. I wasn't going to be accepted on the basis of my grades. I had always been the kind of bored, inert student who spent my school days living in my head rather than listening to the teacher. I had never liked school, never applied myself to anything unless it was interesting. I loved music and I loved writing. I "explored" these subjects rather than study them. I had no discipline. Needless to say, my grades were abysmal.
Antioch rejected me. I attended college in Cleveland, and I lasted about four months. I hated the place. There was no one like me at Western Reserve. I packed my few possessions and moved to Yellow Springs. I found a job cleaning up after horses at a local riding school. My father was patient with my erratic behavior. He sent me a bit of money to supplement the income I made shoveling horse manure.
All I wanted to do was play jazz. Antioch had invited an avant-garde jazz musician named Cecil Taylor to spend a year in Yellow Springs as Artist-In-Residence. I had some harebrained hope that by auditing classes and displaying my brilliance I would find a way to get admitted to the school. In truth, no one from the school knew that I existed.
Let me backtrack a couple of years to give this story some context. I was a classic wild child of the sixties. I took my first LSD at sixteen. About once or twice a month for the next several years I took LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. I knew people who took acid and mescaline every day. I knew a young man who had renamed himself Gandalf. He took LSD daily, for years. He is now a scatter-brained sixty year old living with his parents.
During one of my drug adventures I felt a calling to change my way of life. It was an overwhelming experience. I saw the urgency of correcting my lifestyle, of eating healthy food, caring for my body and training my mind. I began to study Yoga and meditation, and I became an adherent of the Macrobiotic style of eating. Macrobiotics is very austere. The diet is a shock to Westerners reared on burgers, fries and Coke.
I pushed myself to the extremes of Macrobiotics. I ate no sweets, no meats and carefully calculated my balances of yin foods and yang foods. I chewed every bite sixty times. For months I ate only brown rice, buckwheat and onions. I lost weight. I lost energy. I was a fanatic. I didn't understand until years later that I had devised my own unique brand of anorexia.
I was starving myself, and proud of it. I had contempt for people who ate junk food. I had an eye for the condition known as Sanpaku. People loaded with poisons show white at the bottoms of their sclera, the whites of the eyes. This is Sanpaku. I was full of myths and delusions, a driven soul bravely attempting to spiritualize myself, to lift myself from the mire of modern social toxins.
I was putting myself under dreadful pressure. The year was 1967 and not a damn thing was known about anorexia or bulimia. Food disorders were not in the public gaze. I had no tools and no information. I was convinced that I was doing the right thing, that I was ascending a godly stairway straight to Nirvana.
Lord, I craved sweets! I gritted my teeth and turned away from temptation. Then one day I was so tightly wound that my spring snapped. I made a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. I couldn't stop myself. I slathered an inch of grape jelly over a substrate of peanut butter, slammed those slices of bread together and took my first bite of sweets in eighteen months.
My pleasure was equal to my guilt. I felt horrible. I loved it.
I ate a second sandwich. I felt sick. I was no longer accustomed to processed foods. I decided to go for a run, to burn off the horrid poisons I had just ingested.
I ran five miles. At the end of my run I was soaking wet. My perspiration was my expiation. I had paid for that sandwich.
This was the beginning of a rebound bulimia. I had starved myself, denied my ordinary appetites for so long that I had stored up an infinite craving for junk food. Especially sweet junk food.
I had a case of oscillating anorexia and-bulimia. I fell into a bizarre pattern. On the first day of the cycle I would not eat. I did an hour of Yoga, half hour of meditation, then ran five miles. I went to the gym and worked with weights and pulleys. I exercised like a fiend. I swam two miles. I filled the day with exercise. As the hours passed my cravings grew more intense. I fought and fought against my desire for sweets. I swore this insanity was finished; I was back on track with my Yoga and dietary program. As evening came on I could feel my resolve slipping away. The dinner hour passed and I ran another three miles.
Then came the snap! I ran to the grocery store and bought a box of vanilla wafers. I started eating them and was halfway through the box by the time I got to my cottage. Fighting myself all the way, I went back out and bought a cherry pie with ice cream.
I ate all of it. I was doomed. I was out of control. I didn't understand what was happening. I was hopelessly confused. This was the opposite of what I intended!
At this point in my cycle I gave in to my urges completely. What's the use? I thought. I've broken my promise to myself.
The store was just down the street. I got supplies for the rest of the night and the next day. Potato chips. Chocolate cake. Ice cream. I ate and ate but I didn't vomit. My purge was exercise. It's in the DSM, The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders. Bulimia accompanied by exercise purging is a legitimate category of bulimia. It never occurred to me to stick my finger down my throat. That would have been cheating. I had to pay for my sins with rigorous exercise!
I would spend the next day just eating. I was defeated. Then, on the day following, I would awake with new resolve. I can do it! I can exercise it away. I won't give in to temptation. Again, I performed twelve to fourteen hours of fiendish exercise. Then the snap came. Around eight in the evening I couldn't take it anymore. Candy. Cookies. Ice cream. What was happening to me?
I didn't know where to turn for help. I spoke to the college mental health staff. I wasn't a registered student. They suggested I find a private psychiatrist. I couldn't tell my father I'd gone crazy and needed a shrink. He was worried enough. I told him lies.
I quit my job at the stable and became a shoplifter. I used the college gym and pool, always hoping that today was the day I would stop the binge. I was a Yogi! Why was I eating, far beyond hunger, beyond satiation? I had never read anything, seen or heard anything about this disorder. I was alone with a raging pathology, an emotional illness without a name.
I was so desperate that I thought about joining the army and going to Vietnam. I already had a mental health deferment. I figured ways to get around it. I could acquire a new I.D and enlist. That's how crazy I was.
I had a friend in San Francisco who invited me to come out and stay. I thought a change of scene might heal me. I was in such bad shape that I could pull bundles of hair right out of my scalp.
So what happened? A woman fell in love with me. She saw me as a rescue project. She got pregnant. We had a daughter. I had responsibilities, a family to support. Gradually my cravings settled down. My life became somewhat...somewhat...normal. What a joke! My life would never be normal. My future held worse things for me, worse than eating disorders. But I'm still here. I'm sixty three, and I'm okay. I have a good life. It was a mighty struggle to achieve this good life. I had years upon years of therapy. I studied the mind. I studied MY mind, since it was the only one I knew intimately.
There can be no substitute for self knowledge. I came to grips with the violence in my childhood. I acquired an understanding and, more importantly, an acceptance of myself.
Considering what I've been through, I should be either dead or in prison.
I am neither. I'm living well in California.
I hope this story helps someone. It's possible to survive and heal from deep emotional pain and compulsive symptoms. Today we have a catalogue of disorders, of compulsions, from food pathologies to self mutilation. We are aware every kind of addiction and a host of treatment modalities.
Imagine being a kid in the sixties, alone with such powerful demons. I was that kid and no one could tell me what was wrong with me. I didn't even have a vocabulary to describe my symptoms.
It was hard for me to write this piece. It brought back bad memories and painful feelings. It left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. If one person responds to this and seeks help, it will have been worth the writing.
If you have a powerful and self destructive compulsion, remember that you're not alone. Don't suffer alone. Reach out for help.
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